- Historic Sites
Still Quiet On The Western Front
Half a century ago the glitter of the prewar world was extinguished forever in a 400-mile-long quagmire of barbed wire and mud, dead men and dying hopes. Recently AMERICAN HERITAGE sent a perceptive journalist-historian to revisit the scenes of that longest of all battles. Here is the peaceful present at such places as Verdun and Belleau Wood: the lawns are neat and green, but scaring memories remain.
October 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 6
LE MOULIN DE LA CAILLE: “THE GREAT FIGHT.” The wind always blows here; it was a good place for the windmill they called Le Moulin de la Caille—The Windmill of the Quail. There are no cars on the clingy winding road, no passers-by or motorbikes. It is said that along the line of the western front from Belfort to Ostend there has been an emptiness and silence since 1918, and in this place it does seem so. There is nothing nomadic about the French, and no new people have moved here. And most of the boys who lived here in 1914 are now dead, and their sons and daughters who-might-have-been have never lived. So it is very quiet where the French and the Germans fought the battle of Le Moulin de la Caille.
The storehouse of the mill stands, although the mill has fallen into ruins. The son of the farmer who owned it in August of 1914 when the Germans came can remember very well how it was in his father’s day: there were the same trees, and the stream was the same. Perhaps the area under cultivation was larger, and less of the countryside was given over to forest. Perhaps it was less lonely. But the fight was like this: The French lived in the mill——there. A worker was cutting hay with a scythe across the stream. He saw the Germans. He came running to the mill, where marked above the door is the date of its construction: 1781. He banged with his scythe on the door—one sees in imagination the grandmothers of these chickens one hundred times removed running to get out of his way—and cried, “The Germans!” And here is the man: a scraggly mustache, sunken cheeks, watery eyes. When he knocked, the French captain came out and quickly had his men turn over the carriages and carts here by the stream so that there would be a barricade. The captain was around thirty-five years old; his name was Japy. So the French got down by the carriages under this red tile roof which juts out from the walls in order to protect the wood piled up for winter, and they began to shoot. The Germans fired back. Look, here are the bullet marks on the wall. It was very hot and about three in the afternoon. They fought for five hours or so, until dusk. The next day the French left the Moulin de la Caille and went back about a mile and began to cross this canal. They thought the Germans were still back by the mill, but the Germans had followed them. They were wading through the water when the firing began. It was a carnage. The youngboy-who-was has a thin, lined neck, and it works as he talks. And he says the water was red—really red. And Captain Japy was dead. When Lieutenant Bolle came from Belfort the Germans fired at him and he lost his arm. And so it was over. One still finds cartridges in the fields.
Captain Japy’s widow lived until a few years ago. All through Poincaré and Clemenceau, through Léon Blum and the Popular Front, through Pétain and the Resistance, through Liberation and Indochina and Algeria, she lived on, coming Sunday after Sunday, birthday after birthday, Armistice Day after Armistice Day, to visit the place where her husband died for France. She never remarried. Lieutenant Bolle recovered from the loss of his arm and became a teacher and head of the boys’ school in Beaucourt, a few miles away. He lived until very recently. His wife remained friendly with Madame Japy, and each Armistice Day they went together with all the other people to hear Professor Bolle, for so he was called, deliver a speech at the little monument by the Moulin de la Caille. The one-armed professor’s war had lasted less than one hour, but for forty-five years he gave a talk each November 11. The newspaper of the town always reported that he was eloquent as he described the fight as “glorious” and said that France was proud of her “beautiful soldiers” who fell there. Girls sold, and sell, little decorations made by the Friends of the 235th Regiment of Infantry, which, as it says on the monument, “valiantly fought to forbid elements of the 29th and 30th Divisions of Germany access to the soil of France.” There was and is fired a salvo of one hundred shots from an artillery piece at dawn. There was a parade, the marchers fewer each year, even though the veterans of the Second War also go to the ceremony in a body. (They have few monuments of their own and never go to the places where they fought in 1940.) Children get up early and collect flowers from the farmers. And the wind blows across the empty fields and parts itself at the little monument with the names of the dead men, and stirs the shrubs and moves the bouquets placed in the wire holders attached to the monument when it was erected, and stings the eyes of those looking at the raised lettering: “Time removes everything but the memory”; “But these are in peace.” When the day is finished there is a dinner and the distribution of prizes from the little lottery that has raised money for the Friends of the 235th Regiment of Infantry, which fought and lost 164 soldiers of France at this skirmish, this one of a million tiny encounters, this unimportant affair which France and the world have long forgotten but which in this little area near the town of Montreux-Jeune is called the big battle, the great fight.